Uncertainty over responsibility for Manus refugees

4:55 pm on 10 April 2017

A controversial visit by Australia's prime minister to Papua New Guinea has shed little light on how the hundreds of refugees stuck on Manus Island will be resettled.

Malcom Turnbull's first state visit to PNG was a lightning rod for criticism before he even touched the ground, but uncertainty remains around who is responsible for resettling those on Manus.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet colleagues (left side of table) meet with his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill and members of his National Executive Council.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet colleagues (left side of table) meet with his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill and members of his National Executive Council. Photo: Supplied

Both governments say they are working together to close the Manus processing centre by the end of October.

The majority of the over 800 men held on Manus, who Canberra has excluded from ever settling in Australia, have been found to be refugees.

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said that under the Manus deal, it is PNG's responsibility to settle the refugees, and while in PNG Mr Turnbull said progress had been made to settle them in PNG

However PNG's prime minister Peter O'Neill pointed out during his Australian counterpart's visit that most of the refugees don't want to stay.

Mr Turnbull preferred to focus on what his government sees as the outcome of its offshore processing policy

"We have succeeded in stopping the scourge of people smuggling," he said.

"As you know there is a process of assessment for the purposes of resettlement in the United States underway. We look forward to the conclusion of that work by the United States authorities."

American officials have been to Manus in the past week yet only around 300 of the refugees were understood to have been fingerprinted for further vetting.

PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato said he was not sure how many would make the cut in the US deal.

"But if they can settle the majority of them, well that's well and good," he said.

"Of the 1,500-plus asylum seekers who came to Papua New Guinea, 500 of them have already voluntarily gone back to their home country, and the balance is subject of our determination processing, and up to 26 have already agreed to resettle in PNG."

Mr Dutton said that given PNG is a signatory to the refugee convention and related protocols, it has the responsibility to settle the men processed on Manus.

Despite Mr Dutton's firm stand, only a small number of the refugees are willing to settle in PNG and there is little that the local government can do about this situation.

Papua New Guinea foreign minister Rimbink Pato.

Papua New Guinea foreign minister Rimbink Pato. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Mr Pato said that under the terms of the agreement PNG signed with the former Labor government in 2013, Australia bore full responsibility for the men sent to Manus.

"So, so long as the last person remains at the centre, so long as the last person cannot be resettled in the USA, resettled in a third country, or resettled in PNG, then obviously Australia will help us find a solution, because it's really Australia that we are seeking to help."

It's becoming hard to ignore the persistent problems at the processing centre in Manus.

Yesterday, 60 refugees and guards fought at the centre amid reports of a food shortage and poor food quality.

Last month, a similar brawl broke out over food, as tensions grew around the imposition of barriers built around kitchens at the centre.

Amnesty International has suggested the barriers were an attempt to degrade conditions at the centre and convince non-refugees to accept repatriation.

In recent weeks, officers from both PNG Immigration and the Australian Border Force agency have been actively encouraging such asylum seekers to return home under "voluntary repatriation" packages.

As part of these packages, the men - from countries including Lebanon, Bangladesh and Vietnam - are understood to have been offered payments of up to 25-thousand US dollars each.

Still the future for most of the refugees, who have been held on Manus for over three years, remains vague.

The PNG opposition MP Ben Micah said Australia should itself have dealt with this problem.

"If they (the refugees) don't want to live in Papua New Guinea, why treat them like animals and put them in cages?" he said.

"We don't want to be a dumping ground for people who don't want to come here. Australia must set up their own processing facility within their own territory, and process these refugees. We will only take refugees that want to come and live in our country."

A dispute between refugees and guards at the gate to Oscar compound.

A dispute between refugees and guards at the gate to Oscar compound. Photo: Behrouz Boochani

In his speeches in PNG, Mr Turnbull focussed on the enduring relationship between the two countries, particularly in business.

He pointed out that total Australian investment in PNG is US$13.5 billion, bilateral trade with PNG worth US$4.3 billion last year, and that more than 5,000 Australian Companies do business with in PNG.

But despite the strong bond Mr Turnbull mentions, a gulf in sensitivity seems to shade Canberra's operations in PNG.

Mr Micah and others have criticised the decision of Mr Turnbull to finally visit PNG and meet with what he called an unpopular government just ahead of elections.

"Second other thing is that whatever they can agree on now may be changed by who ever comes into power in four months time. So I think the timing of this visit was inappropriate and I think it is insensitive to the nature of politics in Papua New Guinea at this time."

To make matters worse, PNG journalists were excluded from attending a doorstop press opportunity to question Mr Tunrbull as he visited a World War memorial at Bomana.

The Australian High Commission in PNG later apologised for what is being described as a misunderstanding.

However the fact that only Australian journalists had access to Mr Turnbull during this leg says a lot about how Canberra conducts its business in PNG.

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